They're easy to take for granted these days, but there was a time when Asian fusion restaurants were an oddity. If they were vegetarian, or—even worse, vegan—they were considered places only hippies or bohemians would visit. Tiengarden on the Lower East Side has been around for over 15 years, making it one of the oldest vegan fusion restaurants in the city. I thought I'd stop in and see how the food holds up to my modern sensibilities.
Pictured above, the pan seared bean curd skins ($6) resembled wheat gluten chicken strips, but were far more interesting. At Tiengarden they roll up delicate sheets of bean curd skin (the by-product you get when making soy milk) into multi-layered strips. Then they sear the outside with black pepper for a little texture, leaving the inside delicate and creamy. The skins rely on the garlic and ginger dipping sauce for flavor, but the tactile experience of eating these is unique.
The gigantic vegetable steamed buns ($3.50 for 2) were less adventurous, but no less delicious. The piping hot spongy buns encased mounds of chopped, cooked spinach dotted with tiny chunks of garlic. The sweetness of the spinach was accentuated by the salty dipping sauce. These are big enough that you'll want to share.
Organic curry vegetables ($13) promised organic bean curd with "seasonal vegetables" in a mild curry broth; what I got was overcooked vegetables in a thick, starchy sauce. The sauce was spicy, but lacking in curry flavor. The one nod to seasonal ingredients was the inclusion of some fresh kale, just barely wilted by the heat of the other ingredients. I did appreciate the mixed grain rice, with brown rice, black rice, millet, legumes, and sorghum. It gave the dish a much-needed nutty flavor.
Although is Tiengarden is inconsistent, it still managed to impress me. I didn't get to sample any of their more Western dishes, like the vegetarian ham sandwich (made with vegan mayo) or the avocado wrap, but I'd bet that there's something good to be found there. There may be better fusion restaurants in New York, but sometimes paying heed to the past is rewarding.
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian.